Asked if the coaching staff was encouraging 7-foot-2 center Ivica Zubac to take shots from the perimeter, Summer League head coach Jesse Mermuys delivered a grinning response.
“Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “Coach Walton is the head coach of this team! We’re letting it fly, man.”
Indeed, with Luke Walton taking over the driver's seat, the Lakers' coaches have been stressing shooting from every position.
Walton has said on several occasions that he is implementing a system similar to the one he helped craft as an assistant at Golden State, which hit an NBA-record 13.1 3-pointers per game last year and attempted the second-most 3's (31.6) of all-time.
“If you’re not allowing your guys to do that, then you’re behind the times,” Mermuys said after Wednesday's practice at Durango High School. “We’ve got to encourage all of that. And if they prove it and they make it, you got to let them shoot it.”
First, Walton and co. will need to see if this year's roster is capable of providing the kind of shooting that they covet.
Last year, the Lakers took the NBA's 13th-most 3-pointers (24.6) and ranked only 22nd in makes (7.8). Though Los Angeles' cast looks almost entirely different outside of its core of young players, Walton can expect to find some turbulence going from the Warriors — who shot the second-best 3-point percentage of all-time last season (41.6) — to the Lakers — which ranked last in the league (31.7).
In order to find out, the coaches are motivating their players to pull the trigger — even a 265-pounder like Zubac.
“We want to empower our guys,” Mermuys said. “We want them to feel confident and let it fly, especially in Summer League. If that thing comes to him, he’s gotta be ready and line it up. And it looks good.”
The emphasis on shooting can be seen in the reputations of the players.
D'Angelo Russell hit a franchise rookie-record 130 3-pointers last year. Jose Calderon led the NBA in 3-point percentage three seasons ago (46.1) and was 10th last year (41.4). Brandon Ingram shot 41.0 percent from deep at Duke, while Anthony Brown hit 44.1 percent at Stanford two seasons ago (79).
Even Larry Nance Jr., who struggled with consistency from mid-range and beyond as a rookie, came to Summer League with a much sharper shot.
But nowhere is the green light to shoot clearer than with Zubac, who has gone 3-of-3 at Summer League from mid-range. The sample size may be small, but his form looks good and he shot 80.0 percent from the free throw line for Mega Leks in the Adriatic League last year.
“He’s finishing around the basket a lot, and he’s knocking that little 15-footer down easy, too,” Russell said. “He’s just picking that trust up knowing that we know that he can make that shot.”
After a brief career in Europe, the 19-year-old Zubac is thrilled to be part of a team that gives him the license to shoot instead of using him almost exclusively as a screen-setter
“I was in a system where the coach tells (us) who’s gonna shoot now,” Zubac said. “He calls the plays, and players don’t have freedom. Here you have freedom. You can show what you have, and I really love this system.”
Russell Unsure About Monday Conflict
Russell has unquestionably been the Lakers' leader at Summer League, averaging 22.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting. He has his team in the hunt for a summer title and himself in talks for the tournament's MVP award, but there is a chance that he won't play if L.A. makes it to the championship game on Monday.
Russell is a member of the 2016 USA Select Team, which will scrimmage against the U.S. National Team in a four-day training camp leading up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The first practice is scheduled from 12-2 p.m. on Monday, and Russell has "no idea" if that may affect his status for the potential Summer League title match at 6 p.m.that night. He does, however, plan to play in every game leading up to it.
Fellow Summer League Laker Brandon Ingram is also part of the Select Team and has not said if that might affect his availability on Monday. Their regular-season teammate, Julius Randle, is a member of the Select Team, too.